johnmac's rants

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hacking Happiness?

(This column was originally published in the Westchester Guardian of May 21, 2015 -

Creative Disruption
Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changers normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.  

Hacking Happiness?
By John F. McMullen
I just began reading “hacking h(app)iness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World” by John C. Havens (Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, 2014) and, right from the start, I find it very interesting and thought provoking, not totally because of its content but also because of tangential thoughts that it triggers.

Although the title of the book may sound as though it is one of those “touchy-feely” books that technologists and data scientists would deplore, it seems to be far from that. The author recognizes the power of the new “app”-based totally-connected world and embraces it. He just wants us, the individual users, to have control over the data that we provide to others. More than that he wants us to understand the data that we provide and to be responsible and accountable for it. Further, he wants us to provide data to the system that promotes users’ desire that benefit gained from the data be equitably shared with those who provide it. Finally, he wants to persuade the user to be proactive in using the power of the system to promote personal and public well-being --all-in-all, not bad goals for a book!

Havens lays out in the book’s introduction what he sets “out to prove in the book:
·      Data is getting personal – Data about people’s sleep, dietary and work habits, sex lives, and emotions is being collected and analyzed. Our current online economy is built on the management of people’s data without their full knowledge of the process. It’s a dangerous precedent that needs to be reversed,
·      Happiness can be quantified and increased – The science of positive psychology is empirically based. Mobile sensors in our phone and data from the world around us can contribute information about our lives that we can utilize to increase positive well-being and essential, long-lasting happiness. While emotions are ephemeral and subjective by nature, data-identifying triggers leading to or around them are being leveraged to improve other people’s lives in revolutionary ways.
·      The happiness economy is redefining wealth – Countries such as Bhutan, the United Kingdom, Brazil, China, and the United States are using happiness indicators that reflect multiple metrics beyond money to measure and improve the lives of their citizens. People are being encouraged to leverage skills and talents for civic engagement that are providing previously untapped stores of resources that are changing the world for good.” (pp xiv-xv)

In the section on “Accountability,” Havens discusses “Connected Identity” and breaks it down into three different elements:
·      The Internet – where we “are” when we are on our computers.
·      The “Outernet” – the combination of technologies that affect us when we are away from our computers – smart phones, containing GPS, accelerometer, microphone, etc.; and the “Internet of Things,” “which includes sensors and devices in cars, buildings and the world around us that we typically don’t see.” (p 4)
·      How we relate to one another as people.
The confluence of these elements makes up each of our individual connected identities.

The rest of the book (which I am just getting into – but already recommend it strongly – available from Amazon in hardcover ($23.34), paperback (13.47) and Kindle versions (12.80) -- details first how our data is being collected, what we might do to obtain a fair return on its use, and how we might use our knowledge and technological skill to provide well-being for ourselves and others.

One example that caught my attention of using technology to attempt to provide a fair return on our image or, at least, cause the person to stop recoding us without our permission is given on page xxix of the book – “Rather than worrying about strangers filming and tagging without permission, people can broadcast their identities in public places while notifying how they’d like to interact with the world. If you’re at Starbucks and someone looks at you wearing Google Glass, your digital avatar could appear in their vision and say ‘If you’d like to record and I’m in your shot, my face will appear blurry and I can’t be tagged without my permission. If you’re tagging me for commercial purposes, please text me the specifics of how I’ll be compensated for the use of my personal data.’” In this example, the protagonist is expected to be knowledgeable enough to recognize the Google Glass (or any other recording device) and technically astute enough to possess such an app that would both send an avatar out to talk and have the wherewithal to blur the owner’s picture.  We aren’t there now but, hopefully, we will be.

As I was reading the book, my mind, as mentioned above, went off on some tangents. The author writes of “happiness” – has this totally connected world made us any happier?

Some have written that the hyper-connectivity puts inordinate pressure on us to be “on call 24/7” but many seem to thrive on the “always on world” or at least act as though they do. I’ve been doing some consulting for a firm in the Wall Street area and every morning when I get on the elevator, at least one person, usually more (and, most often, female), will immediately whip out her / his smartphone and begin reading something or other – whatever it is, it’s enough to occupy her / his attention until the 21st or 22nd floor is reached (about a 20 second trip). In days gone by, an elevator ride in a skyscraper was a time of boredom or reflection -- now it is just like all the rest of our day, attached to technology.

In the same days gone by, our circle of friends might include some folks we grew up with, some we met at various schools or jobs, people from our current neighborhood, parents of our children, long time friends of our spouse, etc. -- a rather small number, a few hundred at best. Now, we have “friends” from all over the world – hundreds, even thousands. Are these people really friends in the traditional use of the word? Would I turn to most of them for help if I had an ill child or marital difficulty or needed a loan? Of course not – most are merely acquaintances, yet a greater number of acquaintances than we could ever have had in the “days gone by” (Before going further, I must admit that I have 5,000 Facebook “friends” – the most allowed by that system – many are students or former students, contacts and sources from 35 years as a journalist, persons met in the various “virtual worlds” that I wrote about as well as the usual suspects mentioned above. Of the 5,000, I probably have direct interaction with fewer than 200 on a regular basis).
Are we better off for having these new friends or is it a dilution of the time and energy that we might devote to family and “real-world’ friends?

There are many anecdotal tales of life partners met on line but just as many of marriages ruined by on-line relationships that went nowhere. After 40 years of the Internet and a mere 20 of the World Wide Web (which brought “normal” non-technology professionals into the online world and brought computers into our homes), we really can’t say “good” or “bad;” we can just accept the fact that this is the world and, if we recognize the problems that Havens points out, use his or other methods to try to correct the problems. After all, this is our world and we must take responsibility for it.

John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at, and his books are available on Amazon.
© 2015 John F. McMullen  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ellen Meister is on Tonight's "johnmac Radio Show"

My guest this week on the "johnmac Radio Show" (7PM Eastern time, Sunday, May 24th) is writer Ellen Meister, author of the "Dorothy Parker" mystery series. Join us on your computer at or on your phone my dialing
646 716-9756. No matter how you listen, you may also use the number to call in with comments and / or questions (I hold the on air interaction until near the end of my conversation with my guest).
You may listen to any of the previous 87 shows (interviews with writers, politicians (including the recently departed Al Del Bello), academics, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, and technologists) by clicking on the appropriate URL at my web home, under the tab for the radio show.
In the words of the wonderful Charles Osgood, "I'll see you on the radio."

John F. McMullen's photo.

The Weekly johnmac Radio Show

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Life Goes On …. But Where Is It Going?

(This column was originally published in the Westchester Guardian of May 14, 2015 -- -- This published version is a little confising as the layout person mis-handled the section headings.)

Creative Disruption
Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changers normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.  

Life Goes On …. But Where Is It Going?
By John F. McMullen
The best way to predict the future is to invent it—Alan Kay

That 1971 quote from the brilliant Dr. Kay ( is, of course, prescient but most of us do not have the background, intelligence or entrepreneurship to invent the future. Yet, we have to live in it and that will require the ability to acquire the skills needed to obtain and hold a job as those with the skills, intellect, and courage do invent the future.

It is difficult to acquire the needed skills when advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence seem to race ahead of our ability to comprehend, when new terms, such as “petabytes” might as well be in Greek, and when one new device, the iPhone, eliminates much of the music industry as well as digital cameras (which previously had eliminated film photography). Help! When will it stop? Never!

How then can we prepare ourselves for this unpredictable future – particularly when we have busy lives trying to cope with the present? I suggest that the following steps will help in this preparation but they will involve the investing of time and, in some cases, money.

I.             Immerse Oneself in the Current (Newest) Technology
·      Have a computer in the home, Windows-based or Mac, running the latest version of the operating system.
·      Have a smartphone “phablet” and / or tablet.
·      Have a Wi-Fi connection to tie your computer, smartphone, and / or tablet, game machine, television, and other Internet Devices together.
·      Text and don’t Telephone.
·      Participate actively in Social Media– Be a working member of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram. etc. – don’t be put off by those who tell you “all those Facebook (or Twitter) people want to do is talk about their sex lives or what they had for dinner last night.”  -- they don’t know that you choose your own friends and you can drop any people who annoy you with such nonsense.

II       Read, Read, Read
·      The New York Times – on selected days – Monday, there is a column in the Business section concerning the impact of technology on existing industries – Thursday, there are a number of technology articles, product evaluations, answers to reader questions, Q&A with an industry figure, and other tidbits, all in the business section. While the comments so far relate to the physical paper, an even greater trove of information is available if you subscribe to the “All Digital Access Feature” (try it for .99 a week --, including Molly Wood’s excellent video reviews of new products).
·      The Wall Street Journal – devotes Wednesday to its technology related articles.
·      Consumer Reports – has evaluations of new technology products and comparisons with product groups. The current issue (June 2015) cover story is “Brave New World Of Smart Devices: What You Need To Know Now” and the issue contains three articles on the “Internet of Things,” the plusses and privacy minuses.
·      Wired Magazine – the monthly magazine on new trends, technologies, and products.
·      Mother Jones – has constant articles on the impact of technology on jobs, politics, economics, and quality of life issues.
·      Other Magazines – Various quality magazines such as The Atlantic and the New Yorker often have in depth pieces on technological issues. Case in point – The current issue of the Smithsonian (May 2015) has as a cover story “What You Should Be Excited About: The Next Decade” and has articles on such subjects as “Communicating Brain To Brain” within.
·      Novels Bruce Sterling’s “Islands In The Net,Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash,David Gerrold’s “When Harlie Was One, Release 2.0,” Jeffrey Deaver’s The Blue Nowhere” and  Edge,” and Dave Eggers “The Circle,”  all teach the reader about the present technological world or how it could be.  
·      Non-Fiction Books – There are many, many books on technology issues and how technology  interacts with economics, business, philosophy, warfare, education, – find them at Barnes & Noble not in the Computer section but rather in the beginning of the Science section.
·      On The Web Cnet ( and Wired ( provide product reviews and trend analysis.

III.       Bone Up on Reasonable (& Not-So-Reasonable) Predictions
·      Ray Kurzweil’s “Accelerating Intelligence” Site ( -- a daily, weekly, or “on-demand” synthesis of stories and announcements concerning new developments and “out-there” predictions.
·      The Futurist Society ( -- a society dedicated to exploring ideas relating to planning for and impacting the future and the publisher of “The Futurist Magazine” (
·      IBM – has published “A New Way To Work: Futurist Insights To 2025 And Beyond” (

Of course, none of this prep may help us cope with sudden explosions of technology – Kodak, which developed the first digital camera, was put out of business by it. The World Wide Web is twenty three years old and Facebook is less than nine – and very few of us were ready for any of this. The bright side, however, is that the more we read (if we refuse to kowtow to preconceived ideology), the better we will be able to deal with this unforeseeable future.

The bottom line is that we must educate ourselves to understand the present and deal with the future but there is no guarantee that we have “gotten it right” in our preparation or that anyone else has. We have seen BetaMax, which most felt was a superior technology to VHS, lose out totally in the battle for VCR supremacy – and business history is replete with stories like this – Western Union  choosing not to get involved with Alexander Graham’s telephone technology and  IBM deciding against partnering with the firm that became Xerox.

If we can’t adhere to Dr. Kay’s advice, then we must paraphrase it and adhere to our changed admonition -- “If we can’t either predict the future or invent it, then we must adapt to it.
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at, and his books are available on Amazon.
© 2015 John F. McMullen  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Questions For The Candidates - 2

(This column was originally published in the Westchester Guardian of April 30, 2015 --

Creative Disruption
Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changers normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.  

Questions For The Candidates - 2
By John F. McMullen
In my most recent column, I mentioned issues relating to Internet penetration and speed which I feel should be addressed by candidates for the office of President of the United States. We are well behind other countries in the speed of our “broadband” and have a lower percentage of inhabitants connected than other countries. For the country which developed the Internet and brought it to the rest of the world to have inferior capability is not only embarrassing, it puts us at a commercial disadvantage. I think, therefore, that candidates should be pressed for their views on this subject.
There are, however, other issues relating to digital communications that will have to be addressed by an incoming president. The major one, as I see it, involves the on-going debates concerning government surveillance; surveillance portrayed by law enforcement and defense groups as “necessary for security” and civil liberties groups as “invasion of privacy”. This privacy concern also spills over into a great uneasiness about all of the “big data” that is collected about us everywhere we turn and consolidated, sometimes incorrectly, into a profile that can be used for employment, credit, and / or college acceptance or, even, possible inclusion into a list for government surveillance. These conditions have existed since the early days of the Internet but have become much more prevalent with the geometric expansion of Internet users and the development of powerful tools to collect, amalgamate, and analyze data.
Large-scale public awareness of the extent of government surveillance only came with the release of the Snowden revelations and, while there was immediate outcry and heat then, the issue seems to have largely receded from the public radar. On the issue of data collection and use by private groups, there has been little notice or public statement to date (even though these activities directly impact many of our lives). It seems to me that the lack of concern about the hold that data has over us is extremely shortsighted and that it is the responsibility of those seeking our support to first inform themselves of the issues and then to devise policies that both protect us and preserve our privacy.
I full-well understand that the candidates themselves will not understand the technology in use nor the ways that it may be utilized to monitor citizens but there are experts in the field who they cam call on to educate then. One such individual is David Brin.
Scientist and well known science fiction writer David Brin has been concerned about this issue and his 1999 book on the subject, “The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?” (winner of the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech Award), is still relevant 16 years after its initial publication. Brin, a recent guest on my radio show (, feels that the argument that we must trade either security or privacy to protect the other is false. Brin feels that we can have both if we radically change the way we look at this issue (and other issues).
In his writing, such as “People Who Don’t “Get” Transparency or Positive-Sum Games (, on-line talks, including “The Positive-Sum Game: David Brin vs. Cynicism - It Came From Riverside” (, and his conversation with me, Brin stressed that we must stop looking at this issue as a “Zero-Sum” gain, a situation where benefits and detriments related to multiple possibilities must net to zero – that there must be a “loser” for every “winner.” He sees the issue of security and privacy as a “Positive-Sum” one, a situation that, with proper action, there may be benefits to every side – multiple winners.
To achieve a Positive-Sum result, we must change our approach to a problem, eliminating the “take-away from one side to add to another” methodology under which we had been operating. Brin recommended such a departure in the 1999 Transparency book and he seems rather amazed that, although the book has maintained its sales for the last 16 years, no one has seriously suggested implementing the procedures, which he recommended. Brin saw that, with the sweeping changes in technology, it would be impossible to insure that governmental agencies would not have the wherewithal to monitor citizens’ activities so he proposed that the citizens have the same ability – “to watch the watchers;” to be able to see who was monitoring data on us as individuals and to see what data can be seen so that corrections can be made if necessary.
Brin pointed out that “Sousveillance” or the watching from underneath has the same French root as surveillance (“watching from above”). Wikipedia expands the definition somewhat ( -- Inverse surveillance is a subset of sousveillance with a particular emphasis on the "watchful vigilance from underneath" and a form of surveillance inquiry or legal protection involving the recording, monitoring, study, or analysis of surveillance systems, proponents of surveillance, and possibly also recordings of authority figures and their actions. Inverse surveillance is typically an activity undertaken by those who are generally the subject of surveillance, and may thus be thought of as a form of ethnography or ethnomethodology study (i.e. an analysis of the surveilled from the perspective of a participant in a society under surveillance). In short, it is watching both the actual watchers and the methodology of watching being used by the watchers.
I mentioned to Brin that another guest on the show, Mark Rasch, the first director of the Department of Justice Computer Crime section, said that, while he supported many of the activities revealed by Snowden, he felt that one of the main difficulties was that there was no transparency on the issue -– whenever something new was revealed and representatives of the public asked “why?” and / or “to what benefit,” the answer is always “it’s classified.” Brin has an answer for that – he suggests that a high level group of “Inspectors General” be formed outside of any existing government agency, a group representing diverse interests in privacy and security – ex. Representatives of the Department of Defense, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the Scientific Community, Law Enforcement, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Civil Rights Organizations, etc., a diverse group that would have the respect and confidence of the American public and whose job it would be to constantly review, challenge, and approve or reject methods of government surveillance.
The related issue is the data collected on us by private companies from our credit card purchases, store bonus programs, social media, EZ-Pass activity, public records (home owning, criminal records, marriage & divorce history, etc.), location data from apps and GPS systems, cameras in public places with facial recognition capability, and the new tools and methods which constantly appear. “No Place To Hide,” the 2008 book by Washington Post investigative reporter Robert O’Harrow, explored this activity, shining light on the activities of the firms, such as Acxiom, which purchase this data from the various collectors, develop profiles of individuals and sell the results to firms who may make employment, college acceptance, insurance, credit, and other decisions based on the profile which may or may not be totally accurate. At the time of the book, the firms could even select profiles to be sold to government agencies that requested the selection even though the data that developed the profile may have been illegal for the government to obtain without an individual warrant or subpoena (this may no longer be the case). Individuals do not have the ability to examine their profiles (even if they could even find out who had created them) or determine to whom they had been sold.
Under Brin’s scheme, the use of such data by the government would fall under the purview of the Inspector General group. He also feels that we must have the right to examine any such profiles or any data kept about us and points out that, in the past, we had no access to our credit scores while such access is now an accepted fact. Brin believes that this access will come about.
It is one thing for me to write in a technology column about the government and corporate surveillance done on all of us or for a scientist like David Brin to push for new ways of looking at the way we deal with data, but it is quite another for our would-be presidents to show that they understand these issues and are looking for a way to restore confidence in the American public that we are not being herded toward “1984” (in 2020). I submit that the only way that we will have such a response from them is if we demand it.

© 2015 John F. McMullen  

 John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at his web home,, his books are available on Amazon (, he may be found on Facebook, LinkedIn & Skype as johnmac13 and he blogs at He is also a member of ACM, American Academy of Poets, ACLU, and Freelancers Union

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